Monday, October 26, 2009

Library as metaphor

I've been noticing that many discussions of ebooks, cloud computing, omnipresent cell phones, etc. speak of totality of information available online as "a library" or, frequently, "the library." The idea seems to be that by calling whatever font of online information one is promoting a "library" makes it sound good. All apple pie and motherhood. Apparently, people think well of libraries, and this use of "the library" as a metaphor for accessibility and trustworthiness for online information is mostly a good thing for libraries and librarians.

But sometimes, and often, librarians and those working closing with librarians on digital information projects, berate libraries for not keeping up on the latest online technologies or not adapting to the online environment fast enough or thoroughly enough to satisfy these commentators. When I see this happening, it is never or amost never one particular library that gets the drubbing, but a sort of generalized, universal library as if all libraries were part of the same organization or worked in concert like a corporation. The formula sometimes goes something like this: "Google is digitizing books on a massive scale and creating a universal library, but libraries are still stuck circulating books and doing serials check in." Or, "Libraries need to compete with Google and Apple and Amazon for people's attention."

The problem that jumps out at me is the equivalence between Google, et al. and libraries. Libraries are about as like Google as the world's population of independent booksellers are. Even less so. The booksellers are independent. Almost every library is a dependent, sub-unit of another organization. Each is defined less by being a peer of any other library than it is by being the child of its parent organization--a city, state or national government, a for profit company, a non-profit organization, a school, a research university. Google, et al. are rich, single, independent organizations with global mission and reach. No library is like this, and libraries taken together are nothing like this either.

As a metaphor, libraries are one. In real life, there is no such thing as "the library." Analyses that confuse "the library" with real libraries miss the mark in their criticisms, their expectations, and their solutions. Bringing libraries actively and successfully into the networked information environment--the linked up, social cloud of all knowledge--will require commenters and doers to close their eyes to the illusion of "the library" and see the reality of many small libraries that serve specific, particular and local masters.


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  2. Hi Matthew. Just a heads-up that I commented via the CMS blog. I'm curious if you received automatic notification.